Justifiably, Abruzzo is proud of the three magnificent Italian National Parks that lie within its boundaries, and which, along with a host of smaller Regional Parks and Nature Reserves, give the region the greatest area of protected landscape in relation to its overall size of any other part of Europe.

But in contrast to these hundreds of thousands of acres of unspoiled mountains and forest is the smallest jewel in Abruzzo’s green crown. Just a fraction over one single square mile of beach and sandy scrub stretching north from the sea walls of the little port of Vasto to the mouth of the Sinello River outside Casalbordino.

The shrubland, sand and sea of Punta Aderci

The Punta Aderci Nature Reserve stretches north up Abruzzo’s Adriatic coast from the seawall (on the right of the picture) of the small port of Vasto. Sand dunes and sea grass nearest the beach eventually give way to wildlife-rich sandy scrubland.

The name of this tiny treasure ? Officially, it’s the Nature Reserve of Punta Aderci – named after the rocky headland that juts out int the Adriatic. But locally, that’s been abbreviated to Punta d’Erci.

And why does it exist at all ? Until late into the 1990’s, this was nothing more than just another sandy beach. Uniquely for this stretch of coast however, it had a mini eco-system of shoreline sand dunes, sea grass and scrubland and was rich in plant and wildlife, (even Flamingoes have been spotted wading along the shoreline), and perhaps most notably as a spring-time nesting site for the Kentish Plover.

A Kentish Plover and chick

The Kentish Plover – seen here with a chick – lays its eggs in sandy scrapes on the ground. The Punta Aderci Reserve is an important nesting site on this part of the Adriatic coast.

The Kentish Plover ? A migrant from south-east England ? Not exactly. In fact, the Kentish Plover’s now unknown not only in Kent, but throughout the British Isles. But away from the UK, the further south you go, the more widespread it becomes. An attractive little wading bird that lays its eggs – perfectly camouflaged to look like pebbles – in sandy scrapes on the ground. And it loves Punta Aderci.

Slowly – and unofficially at first – the nesting areas were given a degree of protection. Then bit-by-bit, this protection expanded to take in the entire eco-system of this little stretch of Adriatic coast, until it was finally rewarded with full Nature Reserve status in 1998.

Sand dunes, held together by wiry sea-grass

Along the beach, a fragile and constantly-changing eco-system of sand dunes, held together by sea grass. This area plays a vital role in protecting the more established scrubland that lies beyond.

To be cynical for a moment, let’s not kid ourselves that had this been a thriving commercial beach in the usual full-on Italian style, with hotels, ranks of sunbeds and umbrellas, beachside bars, and wildlife long ago replaced by nightlife, nothing much would’ve happened.

But by a happy accident of nature, although the beach is long, broad and sandy, being well-removed from any residential area and accessible only by car, it’s escaped development. There are no local amenities of any sort. It’s also right next to a small but thriving port, and the backdrop – if you happen to look south instead of north – is more industrial than natural, with some extremely large boats somehow managing to shoe-horn themselves dockside.

And precisely because of its location; its size; the fact that it features nothing particularly spectacular or rare; and because it’s well-off the usual Abruzzo National Parks tourist track, Punta Aderci has remained largely undiscovered. Known really only to locals.

However, it’s not quite some secret, hidden shangri-la. This being Italy, while the key nesting, plant and wildlife areas of Punta Aderci are cordoned off and protected, the beach itself can get busy in high summer, though swimming’s officially discouraged as there are no life guards on duty.

But in summer, you can also hire canoes and paddle up to the Punta Aderci promontory to explore the little coves and inlets only accessible by sea.

The rocky promontory of Punta Aderci

The headland of Punta Aderci that lends its name to the Nature Reserve. There’s a panoramic walk along the top of this promontory – and on selected evenings in July and August, you can join a group for a quiet twilight canoe trip around Punta Aderci’s coves and inlets.

Outside of ‘the season’ however – and in spring and early autumn especially – you might easily find (as we did one warm, sunny early October morning) – that you have the entire Reserve to yourself.

Within certain parameters, you can wander anywhere you like. The beach up to around the high-water mark is completely open. Beyond that, the wildlife-rich scrub, while strictly off-limits, is crossed by a well-maintained boardwalk.

Admission’s free; there’s a carpark close-by; and a little picnic area alongside the way in. (Possibly even a small snack-bar too – but with everything tight shut when we visited, impossible to tell).

Abandoned 'trabocchi' along the sea wall of Vasto's harbour alongside the Reserve

Along one side of the sea wall protecting Vasto’s harbour – the southern boundary of the Reserve – are three abandoned ‘trabocchi’, traditional Abruzzo fishing platforms that perch between the sky and the sea like the skeletons of ancient galleons.

In July and August there’s a small programme of leisure events – including supervised twilight canoe trips ! – and no more than a 15-minute drive away in Vasto Marina, you’ll find an excellent choice of places to eat.

The vast splendours of Abruzzo’s National Parks can be a little overwhelming. But here’s a tiny, low-key, rather self-effacing, (but well-run), little hideaway that’s as delightful as it is approachable.

It took as longer than we’d have liked to discover Punta Aderci. Now that we have – we’ll be regulars.